Blog Action Day 2007 – Use less paper

It’s Blog Action Day, and the topic for this year is the environment. It’s a movement where bloggers around the world blogs about one topic, on one day.

So I was thinking to myself, “What can I talk about, relating to the environment, coming from a programmer’s point?”

I struggled a bit. I’ve thought of recycling bottles and cans. Never really put much effort into it, although I buy bottled or canned drinks infrequently. Using paper bags more often then plastic ones? Yeah, and not nearly enough to quite justify it. Paper? Hmm… now that’s something. I’m accustomed to scribbling down notes on something like an envelope or printing paper or notepad. Then I continue scribbling new notes on those somethings until I can’t find another inch of whitespace.

When I first started working, I was actually appalled at the amount of paper used every month. I was learning the ropes at maintaining an application, and every month, I was to print out several reports and tally the results with each other. After checking that they were correct, I would then file them, and they’d be stuck in some office room corner where they’d never see the light again. Unless a disaster came up, such as a fire or earthquake or some user complaining about incorrect figures.

Then there’s the code. For some reason, the programmers of yore coded with such brutality and inefficiency and unreadability, that sometimes I had to print the code out. I couldn’t make head or tail of what they were trying to accomplish. So I thought holding the code in my hands would give me new insights. It was unbelievably stupid of me. It is in the nature of program code to have lots of whitespace. Sometimes, a curly bracket is all that lies on a single line.

So I tried to be clever, and printed the code as two pages on one side of the paper (you know, the landscape orientation). It was another unfathomably stupid mistake. I reduced the font to size 8 points on Courier New, and the resulting printout was barely visible. I had to squint to make out printf() statements. Absolutely terrible.

I also had the opportunity to attend meetings. Arriving at the meeting room, I’d only have my notebook (the paper kind). Other people would be carrying files of papers and the entire email printout of the meeting notes. And let me tell you, some of the email discussions were very lengthy, and with Outlook doing automatic indents for new replies, text were word-wrapped like crazy. A meeting with ten people probably used enough paper to kill a young sapling.

Another observation I made was the reliance of “hardcopies” of some users. They feel unsafe if there were no printouts of whatever it was they wanted, be it documentation or reports. Reports were printed out even if no one would ever read them. It was the monthly routine, and someone continued to print them out and file them neatly in a nice ring folder. It’s a waste of program resources, human effort and paper.

I understand it if you need to print something out. I’ve printed documents before, like program specifications. It’s just easier to have the business logic printed on paper in your hands, then code on the computer. Alt-Tabbing between a Word document and the Visual Studio is tough, even if I am getting better at it.

What can you do? Simply print less. You don’t have to forgo printing all together. A page saved here, a page saved there, and a tree could have lived a little longer. I’m sure there are parts of the document that you’ll never ever need. So print out the parts that you do need. Sometimes, program specs change, and then what are you going to do? Print it all out again?

Recently, I had the occasion to organise my desk into some semblance of neatness, and I finally decided to do something about a pile of files with documents that were like 10 years old (not mine though). I very nearly took them to the shredding machine and then I stopped. I flipped the document pages over, and they were blank on the other side. I suddenly had an enormous pile of rough paper for scribbling notes! Now to get all the staples out of the way…

I think that ultimately, going all out to save the environment may not be the answer, nor even necessary. Just use less. Use less bottles and cans and paper. Starting small means it’s easier to actually start.

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